Authoritarian Media: On Peter Pomerantsev’s “How to Win an Information War”

By Peter B. KaufmanApril 30, 2024

Authoritarian Media: On Peter Pomerantsev’s “How to Win an Information War”

How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler by Peter Pomerantsev

THE 2023 FILM The Zone of Interest—a UK, Polish, and US co-production—was widely lauded for its sound design, winning the 2023 Academy Award for best sound and Cannes Film Festival and BAFTA awards in the same category. Critics marveled at how the movie evoked the quotidian reality of family life next door to Auschwitz and how it brought filmgoers into a total sonic portrait of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” The Atlantic’s podcast interview with sound designer Johnnie Burn was titled “The Sound of Cruelty.” Burn spent a year building a sound library even before the cameras started rolling—an anthology of death-camp construction noises, such as those that would have been audible as crematoria were being built; the rhythmic marching of jackboots; World War II–era single-shot and machine-gun fire; screeches from trains on the rails; clanking metal furnaces; and all types of human screams.

Radios are visible everywhere in the film—in multiple rooms of the main household, on desks and bureaus in the German war offices, everywhere. In his 2005 book The Third Reich in Power (2005), Richard J. Evans writes about the Nazis’ “mobilization of the spirit” via the medium, noting that “[n]ewsreels were not the principal means by which most Germans learned about what was going on in their country and the rest of the world: of far more importance was radio.” In the years that had preceded Hitler’s 1933 election, German leaders had banned Nazi Party members from broadcasting. Once in power, the Nazis reclaimed their time—and fast. In the year after Hitler’s election, Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels broadcast one Hitler speech a week.

Once the Nazis brought broadcasting under state control, everyone involved in the industry had to belong to the Reich Radio Chamber; national and local transmissions came under the Reich Radio Company, and everything was subordinated under Goebbels. The government embarked upon the mass production of sleek, inexpensive radio sets—“Volksempfänger,” or “People’s Receivers”—for citizens to hear Hitler’s voice. In 1933, 1.5 million sets were manufactured; by 1934, more than six million were in use; and by mid-1939, says Evans, over 70 percent of households owned one, “the highest percentage of any country in the world, including the USA.” According to Evans, the Nazi regime also made plans for a “nationwide network of 6,000 loudspeaker pillars to facilitate public listening”— you can hear their announcements in The Zone of Interest at 78 and 86 minutes in.

Hitler’s voice was everywhere. As Peter Pomerantsev tells us in his new book How to Win an Information War: The Propagandist Who Outwitted Hitler,

such was the profusion of loudspeakers in every corner of the Reich, every restaurant, park, factory, and public building, that as he walked through his hometown of Dresden, the Jewish literature professor Victor Klemperer found Hitler’s voice following him everywhere: “I could not get away from it for an hour. First from an open shop, then in the bank, then from a shop again.”

This is the voice—coming from speakers in homes and offices and schools and the streets and parks—that was meant to mobilize the German spirit, first to rid Europe of Jews (who were banned from the radio early on) and then to pursue what the regime would call total war. And as the war raged, many Germans actually wanted more Hitler. People “tuned in to the radio expecting, hoping, yearning to hear Hitler’s prophecies come true. […] They pined for Hitler’s voice.” The Reich sent officials out to monitor public opinion. “[T]here was never enough of him,” Pomerantsev writes, quoting a comment from a report these officials filed: “A smile of the Führer, his look itself gives us strength and courage again.”

Few people come better equipped to paint this auditory hellscape than Pomerantsev, a Ukraine-born, multilingual producer and modern propaganda expert with two books on the subject already under his belt—plus reports he has written at university think tanks about thought control and the information architecture in, among other places, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Born in the Soviet Union, Pomerantsev arrived in London at the age of three with his émigré parents, both of whom were accomplished storytellers. His father Igor, himself a talented author, started working at the BBC’s World Service, broadcasting stories into the USSR from the same UK stations he had listened to in secret back in Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa. Soon the young Pomerantsev would visit the BBC offices in Bush House on the Strand, and when his father would enter the glass broadcasting studio, the boy would roam around the building—“traveling,” as he called it, among the sights and sounds of dozens of countries and languages, some of which he would later visit and study. In This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (2019), Pomerantsev’s captivating account of various national attempts at thought control from Estonia to Macedonia to the Philippines, he writes of these times: “When my father was too busy, I would play football in vast, purple-lit, marble corridors with Egon from the Czech Service. He would later be a deputy prime minister, but when I was eight, I beat him at penalties.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, people around the world were beginning to understand the power of live and recorded sound. Command over radio broadcasting was power, pure and simple. Astounded by what they were seeing (and hearing), scholars in and around Germany began to study why it is that people think in the ways they think—and sociologists, economists, philosophers, and psychologists zeroed in on the content of mass communication, especially emergent media like radio and cinema, for explanations. Karl Mannheim, an early champion of this new discipline, grew ever more motivated to understand people’s thinking as blame and intolerance flared across the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. As David Frisby notes in The Alienated Mind: The Sociology of Knowledge in Germany, 1918–1933 (1983), Mannheim adjusted the focus of his teaching, launching seminar classes in the sociology of the press and public opinion in Heidelberg in 1928. To read through those syllabi on “Wissenssoziologie” (sociology of knowledge) now would do us all a favor. Thinkers on the continent were becoming self-aware, alert to the negative effects of mass media on politics and society in ways that many of us still are not.

Many of these leading European social scientists immigrated—in Mannheim’s case, to the London School of Economics in 1933 (with which Pomerantsev has been affiliated). But they kept up to speed with news and information. The British and American governments helped to support some of these scholars and reaped many of the rewards of their analyses. The Research Project on Totalitarian Communication, set up at New York’s New School for Social Research in 1940, tasked the Austrian psychoanalyst Ernst Kris and the German sociologist Hans Speier—both émigrés—with combing through the Reich’s radio broadcasts in real time to understand how Goebbels intended to mobilize the German nation behind their madman dictator. Kris and Speier’s authoritative study, published on war-rationed paper in 1944, equated the power of the Nazis’ information weaponry with the physical force the regime could wield. “Goebbels bends the Germans,” they wrote, while Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of German Nationhood Heinrich Himmler “breaks them.” Their focus on radio allowed them to understand the singular dynamic that Hitler’s minister of armaments and war production, Albert Speer, testified to at the 1946 Nuremberg trials:

Hitler’s dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. His was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means in a perfect manner for the domination of its own nation.

Through technical devices such as radio and loudspeaker 80 million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man.

The story thus has obvious parallels with the role that the content produced and disseminated by media such as Fox News, Truth Social, X, Parler, Gab, and Gettr play now in advancing an authoritarian agenda.

How to Win an Information War presents a rich case study of Sefton Delmer, a mysterious Australian-born, German-speaking British national—a “propagandist who outwitted Hitler,” per the book’s subtitle. That subtitle suggests we’ll see the moves of a grandmaster strategist, a man who may have played a uniquely important role eroding Hitler’s support as he created and broadcast wildly inventive, fake German-language radio programs into Germany during the war. Pomerantsev’s portrait of Delmer—an imaginative, ambitious shape-shifter adept at multiple languages, master of all manner of print and broadcast media (radio above all), who was almost always able to gain access to anyone—makes him seem equal parts Walter Mitty, James Bond, and Forrest Gump. That’s no small talent, but Pomerantsev himself repeatedly wonders—with questions such as, “To what extent, and how exactly, did Delmer’s tricks help win the war?”—whether Delmer had any measurable impact, and even whether he “ha[d] the right idea.”

The book’s how-to title suggests that Pomerantsev might offer a playbook of sorts, or at least a summary of historical lessons from the war that might be relevant and useful today. But there’s no real instruction here; Pomerantsev’s academic and policy reports, some of which are freely available online, address this tantalizing question far more thoroughly. The author’s approach in How to Win an Information War is to move back and forth in time and across space—so that on one page we are with Delmer in the 1940s and on the next in contemporary Russia or Ukraine or in the disinformation thickets of Fox News. The essential, existential questions the author asks about our present moment—“[W]hat happens when leaders and their followers actively reject the truth if it undermines their political identities? When the powerful are no longer frightened of the truth? Do we need a new type of media dedicated to understanding and overcoming that?”—go all but unanswered.

Still, this is a riveting, often lyrical account of the intricate and interdependent UK, German, and US propaganda efforts during wartimes hot and cold. In his new book On Disinformation: How to Fight for Truth and Protect Democracy (2023), Lee McIntyre reminds us that the first step to winning an information war is to recognize that you are in one. This fact Pomerantsev recognizes in spades. And as we survey the past for key lessons and try to learn from our contemporary journalists, historians, and social scientists, Pomerantsev’s will always be a voice worth listening to.

LARB Contributor

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and The Fight to Free Knowledge (2021). His book The Moving Image: A User’s Guide comes out from the MIT Press in 2025.


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